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USA Vs. Belgium: If The World Cup Were Played In Beer

Tuesday afternoon's match between the U.S. and Belgium will pit two countries with burgeoning beer scenes — and a shared love of fries.
Tuesday afternoon's match between the U.S. and Belgium will pit two countries with burgeoning beer scenes — and a shared love of fries.

The Americans have the spunk, the vigor and a willingness to try anything. The Belgians have the art, the creativity and the tradition of world-class success. We're not just talking about their looming World Cup matchup here. We're also talking about beer.

The topic of beer and the World Cup is now bubbling around in the highest offices of the two nations.

Belgium's Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo has offered President Obama, a noted beer fan, a "beer bet" over the match, tweeting, "Hey @BarackObama, I am betting some great Belgian beers that our @BelRedDevils will make it to the quarter final!"

Of course, this is all a preamble to the big question: What will you be drinking when the U.S. and Belgium face off Tuesday afternoon?

That question leapt into many minds when the round of 16 game was announced. It also illustrates how far America's beer scene and its soccer have come. And it makes us wonder how the two beer cultures match up.

We'll have more of a sports-based preview of the game next week; for now, we're offering ideas that might help you lay in provisions for Tuesday's match. Feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments section.

Here's our analysis on what the U.S. and Belgium bring to the table:

Ale vs. Ale

U.S. craft beer makers have taken ideas from their venerable peers in Belgium, Britain and elsewhere, just as U.S. Soccer benefits from its players' experience on European clubs (it also brought coach Jurgen Klinsmann from Germany).

And as Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery writes in his Oxford Companion to Beer, the ideas have traveled both ways.

"Slowly, the influence has crept back in the other direction as well," Oliver says. "Belgian brewers are experimenting with bold hop character, long the signature of the American craft brewing movement."

U.S. brewers are famous for their India Pale Ale, a style defined by hoppiness. We'll resist the urge to compare that quality to a corner kick. Instead, let's call it a general rambunctiousness — particularly along the defensive line. This is a beer with backbone and power, not afraid of its own pungency.

The U.S. lineup of IPAs also knows how to score. From California, the Russian River brewery's Pliny the Elder gets high marks at both the Beer Advocate and Rate Beer sites — and it was the top pick in the American Homebrewers Association's 2014 list.

Pliny the Elder isn't available all over the U.S., but you might want to seek it out. As a recent review by Boston.com says, "The first sip is 'wow' smooth. Grapefruit and pineapple — hello, citrus — are predominant, and the earthy, forest-floor flavors that you get from some IPAs, even good ones, are absent."

Moving on to other candidates, we start with the beer that recently pushed Pliny off the top of the Beer Advocate list: The Alchemist's Heady Topper, another IPA that's only available in limited areas.

For solid (and more widely available) talent, we turn to Bell's Two Hearted Ale, the Stone IPA, and the time-tested Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which isn't a full-on IPA, in the same sense that some defenders also score goals).

These are beers that will hang with you for the whole game — which reminds us that the Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA would also be a strong choice. If that's a bit too strong, you can always opt for the 60-minute version.

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention perhaps the most fitting American beer to drink Tuesday: anything from Victory. The Pennsylvania brewer calls its DirtWolf IPA "wildly assertive, intentionally untamed and dangerously satisfying." Which is how we often describe the World Cup at its best.

The Monks: Old School

For the Belgians, the discussion has to start with the Trappists. After all, the monks were crafty before craft beer was crafty. And unlike an IPA that might dither around on the field of play, these are beers that know how to finish.

And they're legendary: The Westvleteren 12, one of the highest-rated beers in the world, caused a sensation when it was briefly imported to the U.S. in 2012.

If we want to equate one beer to one player, the unavailable-in-America Westy might be Belgium's Christian Benteke, who proved his ability to score on the U.S. team by netting two goals against them in a 2013 match — but who is also currently sidelined with a torn Achilles.

So, we'll throw that one out. But the talent level doesn't really fall off, because here comes the St. Bernardus Abt 12, swooping in like a striker lining up a rebound off the goalie's fist. It has a bittersweet complexity, like a beautiful goal by the other team.

And right alongside it is the Rochefort 10, a rich juggernaut of dark fruits emboldened by "oaky notes" and "leather," as a review on the Rate Beer site says.

With those starters out of the way, we can look at the role-players and the bench. After astounding you with Trappist ales, the Belgians only get more complex, with funky saisons, light-footed witbiers and aged sour beers breaking off in startling new directions.

Saisons from Dupont and Fantôme bring odd inflections to what might, to an unprepared taster, resemble a standard ale at first glance. But the hint that all isn't what it seems begins with what Fantôme calls "a wonderfully musty and characterful aroma."

The Americans answer with a rock-solid lineup of stouts that are strong in every sense of the word. From Goose Island comes the Bourbon County Stout, a rich glass of charred darkness. Founders brings the Kentucky Breakfast Stout, whose coffee notes could give you a second-half spark.

The 'X Factor'

The U.S. side has another secret weapon: beating the Belgians at their own game. Consider that American brewers such as California's The Bruery, Wisconsin's New Glarus and New York's Ommegang have excelled at making saisons, sour beers and Belgian-style ales.

In a sign that Tuesday's game could be a close one, the winning Belgian-style tripel at the most recent World Beer Cup was from Delaware's Dominion Brewing. And while Belgium's Rodenbach brewery took gold in the aged sour beer category with its Vintage 2011, it was followed by the Funky Jewbelation, made by Shmaltz Brewing in New York.

If you want more proof that Tuesday's match will be played under a vast beer-brella, consider that AB InBev, the mammoth company that now owns trademark beer companies in both the U.S. (with Budweiser) and Belgium (with Stella Artois), has roots in Brazil.

But in what could be a bad sign for the Yanks, the company's headquarters are in Belgium.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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